Conquer Complexion Imperfections
Expert tips and targeted treatments to help clear up age spots, redness, and other skin saboteurs.
By Beth Janes
Looking younger may hinge less on a lineless complexion and more on a clear one: Research shows that uneven skin tone can add about a decade to your perceived age. So while you've been heaping attention — and night creams — on wrinkles to turn back the clock, other factors like age spots, redness, enlarged pores, and adult acne might be putting those years back on. The bright side: Uneven skin tone is easier to correct (or at least conceal) than wrinkles, and it's often treated with the same active ingredients, so you can combat both at once. Here, we put together the best tips for hiding skin tone imperfections instantly, plus expert advice on healing them over time.
A more mottled complexion (a.k.a. hyperpigmentation) is usually payback for years of sun-drenched vacations and SPF-less commutes. All that UV exposure throws dark-pigment-producing melanocyte cells into overdrive, and the melanin they make clusters into brown spots.
Neutralize darkness. "Peach tones help cancel out brown," says Gregory Arlt, a makeup artist for M.A.C. in Los Angeles. Cover individual spots with a peachy concealer before applying your foundation. Concealers housed in a pot are often thicker and contain more pigment; try Bobbi Brown Corrector ($22, department stores), which comes in four peach-based shades. Use a flat makeup brush to apply, then pat with your finger to blend. For more diffuse pigmentation, choose a primer like Pür Minerals Colour Correcting Primer in Peach ($29.50, Ulta). Use both concealer and primer sparingly, and top with foundation. Then determine if any unevenness or spots still show through. If so, dab on a lightweight, skin-matching concealer (like the one you use under your eyes).
Spot-treat with hydroquinone. "It's the only FDA-approved ingredient for bleaching pigmentation," says Ellen Marmur, M.D., chief of dermatologic and cosmetic surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City and author of Simple Skin Beauty. She asserts that despite some prior concerns about the chemical's link to ochronosis, a rare skin disorder, HQ levels of up to 4 percent (the standard Rx concentration) are safe — a position also held by the American Academy of Dermatology. You'll find up to 2 percent HQ in over-the-counter formulas like La Roche-Posay Mela-D Skin Lightening Daily Lotion ($45, laroche-posay.us). Dermatologists recommend you apply HQ only to dark areas, and discontinue use once they lighten. Dabbed on daily, it could take four to eight months to fade spots, sometimes up to a year, says Kansas City, MO, dermatologist Audrey G. Kunin, M.D., creator of the Dermadoctor skin-care line. An OTC exfoliator with glycolic acid, such as C. Booth Glycolic Acid Skin Resurfacing Solution ($15, Rite Aid) or light chemical peels from your dermatologist can help speed up the sloughing of pigmented cells — and the results. Just don't skimp on broad-spectrum sun protection; UV light switches on melanin production, undoing HQ's benefits. Try Burt's Bees Radiance Day Lotion SPF 15 ($18, Target).
Lighten up all over. For more diffuse pigmentation or post-HQ maintenance, or as a substitute for the chemical approach, apply HQ-free lighteners to your entire face. "Pick products with a few agents," Dr. Kunin says. "Melanin production involves several steps, and the more ways you interfere, the better." Ingredients to look for: soy, vitamin C, kojic acid, arbutin, and green tea, plus glycolic or salicylic acid. Try Vivité Vibrance Therapy ($119, viviteskincare.com). In company-sponsored trials, the Vivité cream and prescription 4 percent HQ each reduced pigmentation by about two-thirds after eight weeks.
Consider lasers or IPL. If you're willing to pay more, doctor's-office laser or intense pulsed light (IPL) treatments can give you a faster result than a cream, says David Herschthal, M.D., a dermatologist in Boca Raton, FL. The Nd:YAG laser takes just seconds to break up melanin on individual spots. (A scab may form, but should fall off within a few days.) Cost: About $800 for a five-minute session. For larger patches of pigmentation, newer fractional lasers (Fraxel) have begun replacing IPL as derms' go-to treatments. Both will even out skin tone — and smooth wrinkles! — but lasers direct more heat, yielding dramatic clearing in three or four sessions versus IPL's six, says Ariel Ostad, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center. The catch: Fraxel leaves skin red for a few days; IPL is a true "lunchtime" procedure. Total costs for either could exceed $2,000, depending on how many treatments you need.